The standing barbell shoulder press is a great exercise and improving it can lead to better shoulder development and pressing strength.
But, it is also a difficult exercise to master and strengthen.
You go in, day after day, week after week and building strength feels like something impossible.
And no matter how hard you try, the annoying plateau doesn’t go away. But let’s face it: the lack of progress isn’t due to a lack of hard work.
Building strength is a lot of work.
It takes discipline.
It takes resolve and it also takes continuous hard effort applied to the right things.
Sure, you can lift heavy week after week and make some progress. But this is not the only side of the whole story. In fact, there is a whole other aspect of building strength consistently that you need to know about. And once you do, you will not only lift the numbers you want but you’ll also find that building strength is not that complicated of a process. In fact, it’s pretty straight-forward.
All you need to do is devote yourself and get to work.
What are the 4 most common causes of weightlifting plateaus?
Training has always been seen as something that should kick your ass and when you look at most videos of professional bodybuilders training, you’d see that they often go hard, really hard. But the truth is, more often than not, a weightlifting plateau is caused by training too hard rather than too little.
Having trained for more than 5 years, I’ve come to the conclusion that during my earlier times, when I absolutely kicked my ass in the gym every time, I didn’t make that much progress. On the contrary – it was only after I started taking a more balanced approach, did I start seeing really great results and I felt much better mentally and physically every single day.
1)Pushing yourself too hard.
Yes, training too hard can be holding you back. If you go to the gym, and most of the sets you do are taken to failure and beyond(forced reps, drop sets, etc.), you are NOT training optimally. Here is a direct quote from the strengthandconditioningresearch site:
In summary, training closer to muscular failure might be more effective than training further from muscular failure for hypertrophy on the basis that a greater neural signal occurs and consequently more motor units are recruited with closer proximity to muscular failure.
This does make sense and generally, a guy who works out hard at the gym is likely going to make much more progress than the guy who does 12 sets of 10 reps and leaves. But, there is a fine balance between working smart & hard and just working hard. I personally believe that distinguishing where that line is takes time and comes with experience.
And while on the subject of muscle growth, training volume is a huge factor and taking each set to failure directly hinders your ability to build up a good amount of volume.
The main stimulus for hypertrophy is thought to be the application of mechanical loading. Greater stimulus is thought to arise from more prolonged periods in which the muscle is subjected to this mechanical load. Hence, a greater volume of training might be assumed to be more effective than a smaller volume of training, as it involves a longer duration of time during which the muscle is exposed to the stimulus.
Sure, you might be able to do 12 reps on the first set of the bench press but you probably should stop at 9 or 10. That way, you would train just short of failure and still be able to hit 9 or 10 reps for each next set. Whereas going all out on the first set would directly interfere with all of your other sets.
If you go all out and do 12 reps on the first set, you most certainly won’t be able to hit 12 again. On the second set, you would do 8-9 reps before you reach failure. The set after that would be 6-7 where you reach failure and the fourth would be maybe 4 before you can’t do anymore.
Now, let’s say that you trained with 185 pounds and did a total of 30 (12+8+6+4) reps. Your total volume would actually be LESS than if you decided to do 4 sets with 9 reps each, where the total reps done would be 36 compared to the 30 in the first example.
You see, not only will you be fatiguing your central nervous system more with the compulsive training to failure but you’d also have less total training volume each workout.
2)Not sleeping or eating enough.
I’ve decided to combine these two factors at one point and not waste much space because there is so much material on sleep and nutrition out there. The point here is simple: not sleeping and not eating enough will directly hold you back from getting stronger and bigger.
|You can read more about the 2 topics here:
Effects of Sleep Deprivation and Natural Cures for Insomnia
How to calculate macros for bulking
3)Lacking proper mobility to perform the movements.
I often see people at the gym who could be lifting significantly more weight over time but their poor mobility is stopping them from mastering the compound lifts and slowly building strength. That is why I recommend doing a dynamic mobility warm-up paired with 2-4 mobility sessions each week. This will ensure that you not only have the proper mobility to do demanding exercises such as squats, deadlifts, and overhead presses but you also keep yourself from getting injured.
|Here is more material on mobility:
How to Regain and Maintain Hip Mobility
How to Improve Shoulder Flexibility and Mobility
Best Stretches to Improve Shoulder Mobility for Weightlifting (video)
There are 2 ways to perform an exercise: the right way and the ego-feeding way. You see, the mistake most guys make in thinking that it’s all in the pounds. Lifting more weight = more results, right? Well.. not really.
What happens when you do an exercise in an incorrect way? You’re not training the muscles it is intended to train or at least not as efficiently as possible. What this does over time is create imbalances and bad form motor patterns.
Let me give you an example:
Imagine a person doing deadlifts with 315 pounds for reps, but his form is bad. His lower back is rounded and he doesn’t properly load the hamstrings. Now, because of this, this person is unknowingly forcing other muscle groups to work harder and compensate for the hamstrings. This causes his hamstrings to remain weak and undeveloped, as well as tight.
And I probably don’t need to tell you that at some point, this guy is going to injure his lower back.
Now, this example ties in with the above on lack of mobility, but you get the point:
Improper form will catch up and you will either injure yourself badly or reach a plateau that can only be overcome if you take 10 steps back, drop the weight by 50% and actually learn proper form.
How progress actually looks like(the ugly side of getting strong)
You see, when you first started lifting, you probably got stronger and bigger on a weekly basis. Every workout was better than the previous. This is a phenomena called newbie gains and it is quite real. For some, it lasts up to 8-9 months (a.k.a. the lucky bastards), for others – only 2 to 3. But the reality is this: during that period, your progress and muscle growth look like this:
But once the newbie phase is over, it’s time to take a hard look at what is ahead of you, which now looks something like this:
Lifting more weight on a weekly basis won’t really be an option for you anymore but small, gradual improvements will. This can be a number of different things such as lifting the same weight with slightly less rest between sets, lifting the same weight with better form, doing more reps, etc.
Just remember that your form should not break down at any point, only after you have this factor locked down, can you increase the actual load.
|More materials on progressive overload:
Progressive Overload – The Key Workout Requirement
The Ten Rules of Progressive Overload
Should I do standing barbell shoulder press or seated?
When we compare the two variations, we can easily see that the standing overhead press is significantly more demanding than the seated in terms of keeping your body balanced.
But what about shoulder activation. Isn’t that our main interest here?
Well, as it turns out, there are clear winners in regards to shoulder activation between seated and standing overhead press. This study was conducted to determine which overhead press variation was the superior and the findings were interesting:
For the front shoulder head(anterior deltoid):
1)Seated barbell vs. seated dumbbell – the muscle activation was 11% greater for the seated dumbbell press.
2)Standing barbell vs. standing dumbbell – muscle activation was 15% greater for the standing dumbbell press.
3)Seated dumbbell vs. standing dumbbell – muscle activation was 8% greater for the standing dumbbell press.
For the middle shoulder head(medial deltoid):
1)Standing barbell vs. standing dumbbell – muscle activation was 7% greater for the standing dumbbell press.
2)Seated dumbbell vs. standing barbell – muscle activation was 7% greater for the standing barbell press.
And for the rear shoulder head(posterior deltoid):
1)Seated barbell vs. standing barbell – muscle activation was 25% greater for the standing barbell press.
2)Seated dumbbell vs. standing dumbbell – muscle activation was 24% greater for the standing dumbbell press.
But wait, there’s more..
The study also set out to determine the effects of both standing and seated military press in regards to triceps activation:
1)Standing barbell vs. standing dumbbell – muscle activation was 39% greater for the standing barbell press.
2)Seated barbell vs. standing barbell – muscle activation was 20% greater for the standing barbell press.
How about the one rep max? When it came to testing the 1RM strength the results were as follows:
1)Standing barbell pressing vs. standing dumbbell pressing: 7% greater for the standing barbell press.
2)Standing barbell pressing vs. seated dumbbell pressing: 10% greater for the standing barbell press.
So what can we draw from this study?
It seems that the standing overhead press is superior to the seated in two big ways:
- There is greater potential to push more weight standing than seated. This, in terms, can help develop a stronger overhead press and more muscle growth in the shoulders.
- The standing overhead press not only works the shoulders up to 10% better than the seated press but as we discussed earlier, it also works a range of other muscles that work together to balance your body during the exercise.
And while the results speak for themselves, I can’t go further without a word of caution: be careful when pressing heavy weights above your head especially when you’re standing. There is still a risk of injury if you play around with weights you cannot handle so check your ego at the door and may the gains be with you.
Can I use the smith machine for my overhead presses?
I get this question fairly often and in most cases the reason is simple: “The gym I go to, there is nowhere I can do standing barbell pressing unless I clean it from the ground up. My other alternative is a smith machine.”
Look, I get it, this can be a tough one and I know the feeling all too well. During the first year and a half of lifting, I was going to a gym that didn’t even have a bench or a squat rack (what was I thinking, I know!).
But, here’s the deal:
You shouldn’t compromise your workouts by going to a gym that doesn’t meet your demands. You can speak to the owner of the gym and at least ask why there is a freaking smith machine and not a power rack. Do they not want their visitors to make gains?
You can improvise and clean the barbell off the floor for your sets. But there will come a point where this tactic probably won’t work for you anymore, especially when you want to do heavy sets of 1-5 reps.
Your other option is to find a better gym that has all the equipment you need. As soon as I decided to get serious with lifting and actually build strength, I ditched the gym I was going to and have never looked back. Best decision of my life.
But never settle for less than you want. Don’t just do overhead presses on the smith machine because that is your best option. Find a way to do it right and you’ll be much happier with your training and results.
How to perform the overhead press with great form
The overhead press is not that complex of a movement but there are certainly some mistakes you could be making and a few fundamentals you need to learn in order to get the most out of the exercise.
Standing overhead barbell press:
Standing overhead dumbbell press:
Seated barbell shoulder press:
Seated dumbbell shoulder press:
Now, let’s dive into the proven tactics to increase your overhead press strength:
1.Warm-up amazingly well and take care of your shoulder mobility
A lot of times our focus is pointed at getting stronger or building muscle so much that we tend to neglect other important aspects of training. And one of them is keeping your joints healthy and mobile.
You can see this very often: a guy.. wait.. a bro walks into the gym, greets his mates, asks if the bench is taken and if it isn’t – slaps a couple of 45lb. plates and starts ‘warming up’. Sure, he saves the 10-15 minutes he should have spent actually warming up but that way of thinking is eventually going to catch up to him and let me be blunt: he can’t really train much and make progress with screwed up shoulders.
Aside from designing a warm-up and doing it before each workout, you should also work on your mobility in the mean time. This video by Omar Isuf shows you 3 different tests you can do at home with no equipment to determine your shoulder mobility level and 6 different exercises to help improve it for better performance.
Here is a video by Jeff Cavaliere showing us 2 different rotator cuff stretches. Incorporating these stretching exercises can help prevent a rotator cuff injury and keep your shoulders healthy and mobile in the long run.
2.Manipulate your training volume, intensity, frequency and exercise variation.
There are many different ways to build strength by manipulating different things. Now, each of these variables connects with the others and can either work in perfect harmony or wear you out. That is why combining them in an intelligent way is key.
If you decide to add more training volume for your overhead press, your training intensity needs to be decreased. You can do 4 sets of 10 reps with 65-70% of your 1RM but if you attempt to do the same with 85-95% of your 1RM within one workout, you’d beat yourself up.
The same goes for training frequency and volume. If you do decide to increase your frequency (how often you train a lift), your training volume per session would need to be reduced. If you are doing 12 total sets for your shoulders and are training them once a week but decide to increase the frequency to twice a week, then the sets done per session would need to be decreased to meet the demands of your higher frequency.
Let’s talk about intensity periodization for a bit.
And all of these variables can be tied together with the periodization of intensity. IP is the simple principle of changing the amount of weight you’re lifting as a % of your 1RM on a daily, weekly or even monthly basis. A high-intensity set would be one where you train with 85%+ of your 1RM and a low-intensity set would be one where you train with less (55-60% of your 1RM).
What most people out there suggest is simply to lift heavy in the beginning of the workout and progressively lower the intensity and increase the volume. This is also known as the reverse pyramid training where you take the principle of linear periodization and apply it within a single workout. This is not a bad way to build a foundational strength but after a certain point, it becomes an inefficient way of training.
This is where intensity periodization comes in. It has been proven to be a more effective way to build strength over time and if you look at any good strength program such as the Westside Method and 5/3/1, you’ll see that both employ some sort of an intensity periodization model. This is because of the simple fact that building a great amount of strength requires much more brains than simple brute force.
|If you are interested in learning more about periodization, see these:
Periodization by Layne Norton, PhD (video)
Overview of Periodization Methods for Resistance Training
The only thing you can manipulate without worry is exercise variation. Changing the way you perform a certain exercise has also been proven to help build strength. There are many ways to manipulate the way you do it such as using different equipment(i.e. barbells or dumbbells), lifting gear(belts and straps), small technique changes(grip width, stance width, etc.) and so forth. But for this article, we’ll simply stick to exercise variation.
A good way to change up your pressing variation is by increasing the frequency.
Having two push days each week can help you focus on both the bench press and overhead press twice per week. One workout can be bench press-oriented where the other would be overhead press-oriented. On bench day you could use dumbbells for your overhead press and on overhead press day you can work on your main variation – the standing overhead barbell press. You can follow a simple push-pull-legs split and customize the frequency the best way it suits you.
3.Set up properly to maximize your power output on the standing barbell shoulder press.
Over the years in the gym, I’ve learned a very important lesson:
Lifting weights, getting stronger and more muscular is not about moving the weight up and down for the sake of completing a set. Before I realized this, I was ego lifting, not preparing for my sets and in return, I saw almost no progress.
In order to get the most out of each set you do, you need to take the time to properly set yourself up. And what do I mean by this?
There are a lot of guys out there who tend to overlook this aspect of training. They just get to the bar, and without any preparation, start jerking the weight up and down. In many cases, their form is bad, they aren’t targeting the right muscles and are ultimately wasting their time.
So, how do you set yourself up to overhead press as much weight as you can?
As you grab the bar with both hands:
- Tighten your upper back – this forces your chest to go up.
- Squeeze your glutes – this way, you are ensuring that your pelvis doesn’t tilt forward, which usually causes arching of your lower back and is bad for you in the long run.
- Brace your core – bracing your core muscles before you even un-rack the bar, ensures that your upper body stays stable and helps prevent you from leaning back.
By taking 5 to 10 seconds before each set to prepare yourself, you are making sure that you will properly perform the lift and make the most out of the set. This will greatly benefit you in the long run in terms of progress and keeping you healthy and injury free.
4.Follow a proven strength program
If you’re an intermediate lifter, this is the best advice I can give you, period. It’s easy to walk into the gym, day after day, repeatedly do the same things and wonder why you aren’t making any measurable progress.
After all, consistency is key, right?
Consistency is only key when you focus your efforts on truly effective training habits because I know people who have been training for more than 4 years and their results are subpar at best. Their strength isn’t impressive and neither are their physiques.
A big reason for that is they simply ‘wing it’ when it comes to training. They go in, do a bunch of exercises and leave. There is no element of progress and naturally, they never get anywhere.
You can’t really increase your overhead press by 30 lb. in the next 12 weeks if that is not your focus and your goal, now can you?
This is where proven strength programs come in. There is a time scale. There are daily and weekly numbers you need to cover, there is a smart approach to recovery and when you look at your pre-planned spreadsheet for the next training block, you get to say:
“Whoa, I’ll be lifting x weight for y reps on z date.”
And if you do follow the program with discipline, take care of your recovery and nutrition, you will, in fact, be lifting that weight!
As far as programs go, you can take one of many different roads. There literally are dozens of effective programs out there but my best experience is with Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 and Beyond 5/3/1 (not an affiliate link). I initially ran the 5/3/1 program for a whole year and improved all of my main lifts by 100 to 125% (mind you, I was fairly weak in the beginning).
Then, I followed a simple Push-Pull-Legs split for two years and currently I am running his Beyond 5/3/1 program where there is much more room for accessory work when compared to his original 5/3/1 program. So far I am seeing great results with it and I’m planning run it for the next 10-12 months.
There is much to be said about learning from others. You don’t need to figure out everything through trial and error. There are many people out there who have suffered so we can have proven training systems delivered on silver platters.
5.Improve Your Triceps Strength
Much like with any other pressing movement, the triceps play a big role in the overhead press as well. By working on your triceps strength, you’ll be able to push more weight across many exercises.
Here are 2 great triceps exercises that will help you strengthen them:
By far one of the best compound exercises that will help develop your triceps pressing strength. This is an especially good exercise because you can overload your triceps with much more weight compared to exercises such as the skullcrushers and cable pushdowns.
This is a compound movement that works your chest, triceps, and anterior delts. When training your triceps, this is a good exercise to do first or second because you will be able to do more reps per set and work your triceps much more efficiently.
If you haven’t tried dips before or you can’t do any, this article is a great start. It covers many dip variations for beginners and all of the basics on how to get started.
6.Build a Solid Foundation(Proper Footwear)
Before constructing a building, there first need to be a solid foundation that will hold it for decades to come. Without it, no matter how well-construct the building is, how fancy the windows and walls are, it will quickly crumble into nothingness. And the same goes for your overhead press.
You need a solid foundation to keep your body stable throughout the movement.
In order to have a stable base for your most important exercises (e.g. deadlifts, squats, bench presses, bent over rows and overhead presses) you need proper footwear.
Some of you might be thinking that your old pair of running shoes will do the job but don’t fall into that trap. Running shoes are made for that – running. And their sole compresses under stress to absorb the energy produced by your body and keep your knees and ankles healthy. But, stability isn’t high on their priority list.
If you are serious about strength training and bodybuilding, investing some money in a good pair of lifting or olympic shoes is a great move to make. If you want to read more about why weightlifting shoes are an important part of your training, you can read this article.
But, a pair of good lifting shoes can get a bit pricy and not everyone can afford it. In this case, you can still buy decent shoes for the gym. Look for a pair that has a thick sole that doesn’t compress. That way you can maintain a stable base while having a heavy weight above your head.
I have been using a pair of Converse Chuck Taylor’s shoes and I am very happy with them. Affordable, comfortable, light and stable.
7.Rest And Recover
Strength training causes muscular damage, joint and neural stress, hormone disruption and everyone doing exercise regularly also needs to recover well. Most newbie lifters don’t realize the importance of rest and recovery and the fact that it is outside the gym where growth happens.
Training multiple days a week, every week for months on end can (and will) drain you both physically and mentally. And if your workouts have been feeling sluggish and your warm-up sets feel like you are trying to bench press a piano lately, maybe it’s time to give yourself a break.
Taking a deload week every 8-12 weeks is something everyone should plan out in their programs.
A deload week is simply a take-it-easy week. Typically you lower both your volume (working sets in a given session) and intensity. That way you allow your muscles, joints and central nervous system to recover from all the stress and keep you sharp.
Once the deload week is over, you’ll be able to come back stronger, more energized and more motivated to hit the weights and set new PRs.
Now It’s Your Turn…
Improving your strength is a not easy and some people spend years in the gym without seeing much progress.
We all hit roadblocks along the way and need to find ways around them. Over time, you’ll learn to read your body and know what you need to do to overcome a plateau. Ranging from changing up your training to recovering more. It’s a learning process that takes time and hopefully these tips I’ve listed above are going to guide you well in the future.
Now I want you do leave a comment below and let me know which of these strategies are you ready do apply. Even if it’s just one of them. Let me know in the comments below.